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Egypt opposition hopes for Tunisia-style protests

Egyptian opposition groups have launched a nationwide call for protests on Tuesday, in the hope that Tunisia’s popular uprising will embolden crowds to take to the streets in support of economic and political reforms.

Inspired by a wave of street riots that ended the rule of veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, organisers have urged Egyptians to join the protest dubbed “the day of revolt against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment”.

At least 87 000 people have said they will participate on a specially created page on the social networking site Facebook, despite interior ministry warnings that it will deal “firmly” with people who behave illegally.

The call was first launched by pro-democracy youth group the April 6 Movement, which received the backing of others.

Opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei has expressed support for the protest, saying recently that opponents of Egypt’s long running regime should be able to follow the lead set by Tunisia.

“If the Tunisians have done it, Egyptians should get there too,” the former United Nations nuclear watchdog chief told Germany’s Der Spiegel in an interview.

‘Worrying record’
A statement by ElBaradei’s National Association for Change said that several of its members had been summoned by security services in the run-up to Tuesday’s demonstrations.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most organised opposition movement, and the liberal Wafd — Egypt’s oldest opposition party — have not formally endorsed the demonstrations, but have said many of their members will take part.

Amnesty International in a statement urged the authorities not to crack down on Tuesday’s planned protests.

“Egypt needs to allow peaceful protests, and stop arresting and intimidating peaceful opposition activists,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for its Middle East and North Africa programme.

“The country’s security forces have a worrying record when dealing with demonstrators, and we urge them to refrain from excessive and disproportionate force tomorrow.”

Emergency law
In December, the self-immolation of 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi unleashed a wave of street riots across the North African country that culminated in the dramatic ousting of Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

Bouazizi’s attempt to draw attention to economic hardship and repression sparked a series of copycat public torchings in Egypt, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Tunisian grievances have been echoed throughout the Arab world, whose mainly autocratic leaders were left unnerved by events in Tunisia.

Egyptians have long complained of economic difficulties, and Cairo has come under repeated criticism for failing to lift an emergency law in place for three decades.

The controversial law, which gives police wide powers of arrest, suspends constitutional rights and curbs non-governmental political activity, was renewed in 2010 for a further two years.

The opposition has repeatedly called for clean and democratic elections and rejected perceived plans for Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to take power after his father.

Mubarak (82) has been in power since 1981 and has yet to announce whether he will run for a fifth six-year term in elections scheduled for September.

Marginal freedoms
The authorities have rejected the idea that the Tunisian scenario could spill over into Egypt.

But in a sign of anxiety over public discontent, authorities have recently tried to reassure the public that subsidies on basic commodities will remain in place.

Around 40% of Egypt’s 80-million population live on around $2 per day, and a large part of the population relies on subsidised goods.

However, analysts have expressed doubt that Tunisia’s uprising will have a short-term impact on Egypt, saying that unlike Tunisia, the Egyptian regime had managed to give the opposition a margin of freedom.

The Egyptian army, from whose ranks all presidents have emerged, is also deemed loyal to the regime, they say.

Government warns against protest
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government warned activists hoping to emulate Tunisian pro-democracy protesters that they face arrest if they go ahead on Tuesday with mass demonstrations some have billed as the “Day of Wrath”.

Coinciding with a national holiday in honour of the police, a key force in keeping President Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years, the outcome in Egypt on Tuesday is seen as a test of whether vibrant Web activism can translate into street action.

Since Egypt bans demonstrations without prior permission, and as opposition groups say they have been denied such permits, that means that any protesters may be detained.

Interior Minister Habib el-Adli has issued orders to “arrest any persons expressing their views illegally”.

“I tell the public that this Facebook call comes from the youth,” Adli said in an interview published by the state-owned newspaper al Ahram on Tuesday but released before midnight.

“Youth street action has no impact and security is capable of deterring any acts outside the law,” he said, adding that he welcomed “stationary protests held for limited periods of time” and that police would protect the protesters.

“Our protest on the 25th is the beginning of the end,” wrote organisers of a Facebook group with 87 000 followers. “It is the end of silence, acquiescence and submission to what is happening in our country. It will be the start of a new page in Egypt’s history — one of activism and demanding our rights.”

Rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged Egypt’s authorities “to allow peaceful protests”.

Protests rare
But protests in Egypt, the biggest Arab state and a keystone Western ally in the Middle East, tend to be poorly attended and are often quashed swiftly by the police.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood has not called on members to take part but said some would join in a personal capacity.

Cairo security director Ismail Shaa’er said the government had sent warnings to protest organisers that they would need an interior ministry permit: “In the absence of such permits, these demonstrations and sit-ins will be dealt with in a legal manner and those beyond the law will be arrested,” he said.

Commenting on the wave of public unrest in Tunisia, Adli said talk that the “Tunisian model” could work in other Arab countries was “propaganda” and had been dismissed by politicians as “intellectual immaturity”.

Activists and the opposition say the interior ministry refuses to issue protest permits, citing security reasons.

Sympathisers across the world have said they plan to protest in solidarity. In Kuwait, security forces detained three Egyptians on Monday for distributing flyers for the protests.

“On January 25, Egyptian protesters will carry their cameras as their weapons,” one Facebook user wrote, 10 days after Tunisians faced down their veteran leader’s police state in a revolt flashed around the world in website images.

“They will use cameras to capture every policeman who will attack peaceful protesters and every scene of our protests to show it to the world.” — Sapa-AFP, Reuters

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